Wednesday, 28 July 2010

On failing to be a good preacher

I had a good discussion with some students today about preaching. If you're preparing for ministry, you'll need to develop some basic homiletical skills and techniques, and you'll need the kind of critical feedback that can help you to become a better preacher. But you don't really ever want to become a "good" preacher – the kind of trained professional who can deliver flawless, carefully calculated and perfectly executed homilies. To preach is to accept responsibility for the Word of God in the world. It is to put ourselves in an impossible position: we should speak God's word, but we can't make this happen. No amount of exegetical mastery or homiletical savviness can ensure that God will speak to the congregation. As Karl Barth famously put it: “As ministers, we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, so we cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognise both our obligation and our inability, and by that very recognition give God the glory.”

For me, the paradigmatic experience of preaching is not the good sermon, but the failed sermon: when you're trying to speak God's Word, but you're looking out at a sea of bored, distracted, yawning faces, people furtively glancing at their watches – when you yourself, the preacher, are glancing at your watch and wondering when it will all be over. Anyone who has to preach regularly will know this experience. It is an exemplary experience, because it's here that you encounter the real nature of preaching: the fact that it arises not from the preacher's fullness, but from an unbearable emptiness; the fact that it is always bound to fail – it has to fail – unless some miracle occurs, unless God speaks.

The most beautiful vases are often made to look unfinished; there is something incomplete about them, a kind of beautiful, beckoning lack. In the same way, I think preaching should be performed in such a way that it never seems quite finished, never perfect or complete. When you stand up and begin to speak, you are marking a vacant spot, a need, a prayer for something else, something other to occur.

As I was discussing this today with some students, I realised that this is why I tend to preach without notes, or with only a very minimal outline. At any cost, I want to resist the temptation to become a good preacher. I want to make it easier for myself to fail.


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